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YGPhoto by Tyler Mitchell

Gangster rapper YG raises a middle finger to racism in 2016

We talk to the West Coast rapper about growing up in Compton, saving his dad’s life, Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump

Gangster rap is a facet of hip hop culture that still strongly and clearly expresses a profound indictment of the moral decadence of America’s dominant society – and Compton rapper YG has become the poster child of the genre in 2016. With anthems like “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” and “Police Get Away Wit Murder”, he bluntly and unapologetically raises a middle finger to the callousness, indifference, greed, and avarice demonstrated time and time again by America’s leaders.

On paper, YG and I – along with hundreds of thousands of white fans who come from low crime rate, suburban homes – have next to nothing in common. Yet when he raps “We’ll put our hands up and they’ll still shoot motherfucker” to a Brooklyn audience, all the white kids join along. It’s not because the issues he’s tackling are in direct reflection of our own experiences, but because we’re collectively aligned on the deep, vicious legacy of white supremacy that continues to arrest the development of US democracy.

Racial differences acknowledged, YG fans come together through a fierce disgust with the hypocrisies and detrimental defects in America’s xenophobic society. While no, I will never know what it is like to be YG – to be in a gang, to be haunted by the unexplained circumstances around the night he was shot by an unidentified gunman, to have my talents devalued by most institutions, or to be a black person in a time when Donald Trump might be our next president – we can still unite with a mutual sensitivity to the suffering of others.

When I met YG in his dressing room just after his show at the Barclays Centre, I prefaced our talk by honestly unveiling my intentions for what would be a vulnerable conversation: to educate and enlighten these fans who, like me, feel moral connections to YG’s fiery directives, but cannot respectfully claim to identify with his experiences on any front. As we unpacked our perspectives, YG and I realised that, at a time when the American empire is facing exhausting cultural decay, racial tensions in modern day America are, inspiringly, not tearing us apart, but bringing us together.

Paint me the picture of life for YG as an eight-year-old living in Compton.

YG: I was all over the place. I was living in South Central at that time, at my granddaddy’s house. There was a lot of gang shit going on over there. We moved to Paramount, which is right next door to Bompton. I’m from Bompton, my mom is from Bompton, my pops went to jail, and after we moved, I eventually made it back. That’s when I started gangbanging and doing my own shit. I’ve seen motherfuckers get popped, killed, drive-bys, people get shot at and shooting back, all types of shit. I done saved my pops one time.

What do you mean?

YG: We was living on the north side of Long Beach at this time, and there’s this fish market on Atlantic and Orange, I think. My pops was about to get out of the car to go make the order, and I seen this dude parked in the front. He popped the trunk, grabbed a strap, and I couldn’t really see nothing – I didn’t see a gun. I was young, probably 12 or something, but I knew what he was doing. I told my mom and pops, ‘Don’t go up in there. He about to do something.’ They wouldn’t listen. I kept telling them, and eventually we ended up leaving. Later on in the news, we saw that the fish market got robbed, and some people got shot up in the inside. Real shit.

That’s crazy. You were only 12?

YG: I was a little ass boy. When I think back at that shit, it’s crazy. I was on some other shit a long time ago. But it was regular. I ran back to Bompton when I was 16, and started robbing homes when I was 17. When you’re from LA, the gangbang shit is regular. Either your family do it, all your homies do it, your girlfriend’s a gang member, or her family members are gang members. It’s a part of the culture.

“When you’re from LA, the gangbang shit is regular. Either your family do it, all your homies do it, your girlfriend’s a gang member, or her family members are gang members. It’s a part of the culture” – YG

When did you realise that this was normal there, but not normal in other places?

YG: I started to see that as I grew up. I got signed when I was 19, when I was fresh out of jail. I was young. At that time I started seeing different shit. I started travelling and seeing that things were different. That’s got something to do with how I am today. People say I’m always acting like I’m older, which I don’t really get. I guess I got an old soul, and it’s because I’ve seen so much.

Do you remember when you first noticed racism in law enforcement against black people, or ethnic minorities in general?

YG: I’ve been dealing with that shit since I was a youngin’. But before I really knew about the racist shit, we just didn’t fuck with police. Period. That’s how it always was. Racist shit isn’t what you’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis when you’re young. On a day-to-day basis, you’re dealing with police. When you’re young, the racist shit isn’t as much in your face as the police shit is. Then as I grew up and started seeing people’s faces when we walk in the building and when we’re around, that’s when you’re like, ‘Damn, this shit is wild.’

To me, that’s a really foreign concept. I was raised to believe that police are there to protect me – but clearly that wasn’t how you saw things.

YG: Oh, yeah. Never. I was like, 15 years old and the police ran up in our house. At the time, my mom and pops had popped their little business off. My mom started a daycare and had it going for some years. They were making money but doing some fraud shit on the low. I was in bed one night, asleep, and the police raided my house. I woke up to a motherfuckin’ nine, like, right in my face. On God. I got on draws and the police was like, “Get up!” Like, what the fuck? That’s the shit that happens. It’s real.

Having experienced these things, when you see people arguing that #AllLivesMatter movement is superior to #BlackLivesMatter, what’s your response?

YG: All lives do matter, but my peoples are saying that black lives matter because we’re talking about us, not y’all. We’re fighting for our rights. This is for us. They try to take that shit and use it against us because that’s what they always want to do. We’re not saying your lives don’t matter. We’re saying black lives matter. That don’t mean nobody else lives’ matter. Go look up the definition of ‘matter’ and tell me what that mean. It don’t mean ‘this means more than that.’

Do you think that movements like this are dividing us further?

YG: Look, everybody knows what’s going on. It’s real. If you feel like (Black Lives Matter) divides us, you’re fucking racist on the low. You see what we got going on out here, and you know we how we’re pushing that line. Pure point blank. All that other shit? You’re just using that as a reason to be racist. I don’t fuck with that. All lives do matter – this is just us speaking for our people. We’re the ones getting murdered on camera. This is the truth.

Do you know much about Malcolm X?

YG: I know Malcolm X was about retaliation, and Martin Luther King was with peace and unity. Malcolm X was like, ‘If you’re killing our people we’re killing y’all.’ I know that, but I don’t know too much.

Do you agree with one of their leadership styles over the other?

YG: You need the person that makes peace to be in charge, due to the way America is. We can’t just be going around killing each other. But we also need someone who’s as real as Malcolm X was. Martin Luther King should be president and Malcolm X should be vice president.

“If you feel like (Black Lives Matter) divides us, you’re fucking racist on the low” – YG

Do you read much?

YG: I don’t read, I’ll be trying to get to it, but it was never my thing. In school I was good at math, science and physics, but English and shit – that wasn’t me. I got ADD, so I can’t just sit and read.

It’s interesting, because you’ve taken a leadership role with your music that’s similar in nature to the way Malcolm X preached a lot of his messages.

YG: Hell yeah. I want to get into it.

There are a lot of black prophetic leaders in history I think you’d resonate with – Cornel West is another one.

YG: You know about some shit.

It’s weird. I’m as white as white gets, but it was always really frustrating for me trying to understand why black people in America are treated as they are. It can just be uncomfortable to talk about, since I never want to imply that I can relate to what black people go through every day here.

YG: Aw, that’s what’s up. It’s okay, though. In the future, this racism shit isn’t going to be normal because all the motherfuckers on some racist shit are older. The majority of the young kids, like us, we fuck with each other. We like white girls, we like shit y’all do, and y’all like shit we do. It’s the old people that were young back in (the pre-civil rights) time that are spreading racism. That shit’s still with them.

But there are so many young people in this country who are still vocal racists.

YG: It’s their parents! The majority of us are on the same page. All of the middle Americans who are on that – their kids are gonna be the last ones to get on what we’re already on. Music and entertainment is helping that shit.

That’s true. I guess that’s where you come in, especially with songs like “FDT”. Was there a reason you put G-Eazy and Macklemore, two white rappers, on the remix?

YG: Yeah, I wanted to let the world know that there are white people that don’t fuck with Donald Trump, but it hasn’t been put out to the masses. Your own people don’t fuck with you. You know that – you’re one of them.

Yeah. But Donald Trump’s racist behaviour means something different to me than it means to you.

YG: You wanna know why white people hate us? Our skin carries more melanin. If you and I had a baby, our baby would be considered a black baby, because we got more melanin in us. So white people are scared that we’re gonna wipe out the white race. That’s what it’s all about. But like, we didn’t come up with that shit! And who’s thinking about that? They’re scared for nothing. I got nothing against white people, at all. But when I see white people make weird faces and turn their heads when we walk in, it’s fucked. I feel like whatever’s going on with our skin colour and our differences and things like that, we have nothing to do with it. We were all created the same way: by God. They’re just trying to control shit. The world ain’t ever going to be perfect, and there will always be some shit going on. It’ll slowly but surely get better, but for now, we’re trying.